The girls in Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres have so much going against them. They’ve been abandoned by their parents to the tender mercies of Catholic nuns. The nuns do their best, but their best includes lectures on how sinful these girls are and lots of punitive chores. The girls are always a little hungry, a little cold, and have to go without the comfort of anyone’s affection. Their only goal is to escape the convent, but most of their plans are like unfunny versions of the Underpants Gnomes’ plan. The Guineveres, narrated by Vere, covers the last years the four Guineveres lived at the convent and how they eventually left.
The four Guineveres became friends only because they all share the same given name (they use very different nicknames). Otherwise, they are very different. Vere, the first Guinevere to arrive at the Convent of the Sisters of Supreme Adoration, is very quiet and religious. She hopes that her mother will someday come back for her, though the hope dwindles every year. Ginny is more lively. She came to the convent after her father murdered his wife and her lover. Win is physically tougher, but she struggles with her mother’s disappointment and other peoples’ scorn. Gwen is the most troubled of the four. I wanted to kidnap her and hand her over to a feminist therapist for most of the book.
When we meet them, the Guineveres are executing a plan to escape the convent in a parade float. It fails, of course, and the girls end up assigned to the sick ward to care for the aging inmates. Near the middle of their punishment term, five comatose soldiers arrive at the convent. No one knows who they are other than they are British soldiers. We don’t even know which battle they were wounded in, though we know that they were wounded near the beginning of the war. One of the soldiers does wake up and another girl (not one of the Guineveres) is sent to care for him during his convalescence. Seeing this leads the Guineveres to hatch a new plan: they “adopt” a soldier and will go home with him as a nurse when he wakes up. The plan is full of holes but the girls put all of their hopes into praying for the soldiers to wake up.
Over the course of the book, Vere reveals more about the Guineveres’ histories, incidents at the convent, spiritual crises, and how the girls ultimately grow apart. (She also gives us hints about life after the convent, years later. The hints are alternately comforting and heartbreaking.) Many chapters at the beginning of The Guineveres are told in the first person plural. It takes a while to learn who the girls are as individuals, especially Vere. Vere was very much a part of the collective of the Guineveres. The pressure of wanting to escape by any means necessary, however, causes the group to fracture and splinter apart.
The Guineveres is an amazing psychological study. Domet has a knack for slowly developing a character while seeming to be very upfront with details. Vere hands out facts and backstory, but it’s the characters’ actions that fully reveal who they are and what motivates them. This is also a very sad book about how girls can break when their guardians’ “good intentions” end up twisting their psyches. (One can easily read The Guineveres as an anti-Catholic story but I chose to read it as an example of an old version of Catholicism that hopefully doesn’t exist anymore.) Between the character portraits and the gender issues, this could be a brilliant book club books.